As talented, rich and famous as he is, many people have Jack White down as a very good plunderer rather than a bona fide musical pioneer. He’s made a career from referencing the past, and admittedly doing it (for the most part) magnificently. And let’s not forget that in most interviews we hear him coming across as a well-meaning Luddite when it comes to talking about making – and consuming – music. As far back as 2003, when The White Stripes’ classic album ‘Elephant’ found its way online shortly before its release, he was clearly extremely irritated and likened the whole scenario to “opening your presents before Christmas Day”. And in 2006, when his other band The Raconteurs were touring debut album ‘Broken Boy Soldiers’, they preferred to fill out the set with a bunch of well-chosen covers rather than play much new material (in fact, they previewed just the one during the entire tour – the delirious powerpop rush of ‘Five On The Five’, which rightly finds its way onto the new album). Why? Well, the man himself told NME at the time that he was conscious that the live versions would almost instantly appear online, thus negating the impact of the new tunes when the second record did eventually appear.
All of this may go some way to explaining why The Raconteurs have chosen to present their new album in such a unique way, via an announcement on March 18 that the LP would be released a week later in all formats, available both in the shops and online, with no advance review copies. While initially this may seem like an egalitarian, laudable levelling of the playing field, it can also be argued that, like Radiohead’s ‘pay anything’ policy on ‘In Rainbows’, perhaps it’s just a neat way to avoid a sales-affecting leak, while masquerading as a revolutionary stance.
But let’s face it, the bottom line is the band are all almost certainly desperate to get back out there. White was forced to stop touring prematurely with The White Stripes last year because of bandmate Meg White’s “acute anxiety”, co-frontman Brendan Benson has not made a solo record since 2005’s ‘The Alternative To Love’, and rhythm section Jack Lawrence and Patrick Keeler have seen their ‘other’ band The Greenhornes split up since The Raconteurs first hit the road. So we’re going to be seeing a lot of them this year, and now, finally, there’s loads of new songs to play. So what are they like then?
Well, the first surprise is that there is audible evidence that White has finally seen the inside of a modern recording studio. He did record the Stripes’ 2007 album ‘Icky Thump’ here (Blackbird in Nashville, his new home city), but the duo still seemed a little reigned in by the economy of their set-up.
On ‘Consolers Of The Lonely’, The Raconteurs’ bigger budget has allowed them to develop an even grander sound (the drums especially sound enormous), and as a result comes across like a brighter, more ostentatious version of ‘Broken Boy Soldiers’. However, it’s not necessarily better. In fact, like most Jack White-related records it contains moments of pure genius, but can also plumb the depths. Anyone who heard the ‘Scottish’ songs on ‘Icky Thump’ can attest to that.
Initial highlights on ‘Consolers…’ include the razor-sharp single ‘Salute Your Solution’, featuring White’s most insistent riff since The Stripes’ high benchmark ‘Seven Nation Army’ (though it does sound suspiciously like the MC5’s ‘High School’). A three-minute gem, it’s destined to be as big a crowd pleaser as the outfit’s debut single ‘Steady, As She Goes’. There are other cracking rockers – ‘Attention’ features ace nagging keyboards and some great guitar noodling, before eventually collapsing into confusion in exhilarating style. Later, a cover of cult British rocker and White favourite Terry Reid’s ‘Rich Kid Blues’ kicks off like a tender, self-pitying lament, before the irresistible, proggy wig-out ending recalls the more indulgent side of The Who around the time of their classic ‘Who’s Next’ album.
Other highlights include the insanely catchy ‘You Don’t Understand Me’, featuring a wonderful piano hook and saturated in the woozy, Beatlesesque harmonies so beloved of both White and Benson. And possibly best of all, ‘The Switch And The Spur’ is a swashbuckling cowboy adventure featuring stabbing piano and dramatic brass flourishes which recall the Stripes’ take on Patti Page’s ‘Conquest’. It’s utterly fantastic, but such is its studio-bound intricacy it will be difficult to see them replicating it live. Shame.
Close behind, but on another tip entirely, the pared-down ‘Pull This Blanket Off’ is noticeable for its brevity (clocking in at just under two minutes), with White singing lead vocal over a gorgeous piano part and understated electric guitar.
While The Raconteurs’ sonic ambition is obviously laudable, it doesn’t always come off. ‘Many Shades Of Black’, sung by Benson, is a low point – it starts off pretty well, but by the chorus has become what amounts to an over earnest, dodgy soul pastiche. The rockers aren’t all great either – the fairly generic, shoutalong ‘Hold Up’ is pretty irritating, sounds like an outtake from the first album, and could easily have been discarded, especially given that the record clocks in at around 55 minutes.
Anyway, for now, what we’re saying that ‘Consolers Of The Lonely’ is a very good record, but has not revealed itself as a truly great one – yet. But we’ll give it time. After all, the joys on offer within ‘Broken Boy Soldiers’ only became fully apparent after viewing the band’s blistering live performances.
What we can say is The Raconteurs have made a little piece of history with the speediness of this release – no matter what the motive.